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ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatia will pull its soldiers out of the U.N. peace force in the Golan Heights as a precautionary step, the government said on Thursday, after media reports that Croatian arms were being sent to Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
The Croatian government denied the reports and said it had never sold or donated weapons to the rebels, but Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said the damage was already done.
"We can deny over and over again, but everyone has already read these reports and our soldiers are no longer safe. We want them to return home safe and sound," he told a cabinet meeting. He did not elaborate further on Croatia's reasons for the move.
Croatia, which joined NATO in 2008, has 98 soldiers in the U.N. force that has helped maintain calm in a demilitarised zone along Syria's Golan frontier with Israel since a ceasefire that ended the 1973 Middle East war.
The United Nations has warned that the almost two-year-old Syrian civil war, which has killed nearly 70,000 people, could spill over into the sensitive Golan region.
Earlier this week the New York Times and Croatian media said Syrian rebels had been given Croatian armour-piercing grenades, rocket launchers and recoilless cannons, and that these arms had been flown by Jordanian cargo planes from Zagreb airport.
President Ivo Josipovic, the supreme commander of Croatia's armed forces, said he would order the soldiers to be withdrawn.
"We shall respect Croatia's international obligations and safety requirements of the soldiers from our partner countries," a statement by Josipovic's office said on Thursday.
The United Nations reported on Tuesday that a member of the peace force in the Golan's demilitarised zone had gone missing.
Reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic; Editing by Mark Heinrich